Pakistan militants lose drug monopoly
ISLAMABAD // The Pakistan military’s anti-Taliban offensive in the north-west tribal area of Khyber has released the country’s hashish trade from the grip of a militant faction involved in the massacre of 148 schoolchildren and teachers in Peshawar last week.
Since November, troops supported by warplanes and helicopter gunships have targeted camps of Lashkar-i-Islam, a faction that has virtually ruled the Bara and Tirah Valley areas of Khyber since Islamist militants launched an insurgency against the Pakistani government in 2007.
Lashkar-i-Islam was formed independently and did not bow to the central leadership of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main insurgent grouping, which tried to eliminate its leader.
Their fighters clashed frequently until the military offensive forced the Lashkar-i-Islam leader, Mangal Bagh Afridi, to seek help from TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah.
Fazlullah sent reinforcements from adjoining areas of Khyber and the neighbouring eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, where he is currently based.
In return, the Lashkar-i-Islam helped in the TTP’s attack on an army-run school in Peshawar on Tuesday, the Pakistani military has said, and the group and its leader are being hunted in the Khyber region.
Bara, a tribal town at the foot of hills visible from the city, has for decades been the major wholesale market and distribution centre for cannabis resin, or hashish, produced in the Maidan area of Tirah Valley and in provinces across the border in Afghanistan.
Lashkar-i-Islam has operated there independently of the TTP, mounting dozens of attacks on security forces and local tribes that resisted its attempts to seize control of the hashish trade from local producers. By 2011 the group had transformed hashish into a highly profitable commodity trade, according to a 2012 report by the FATA Research Centre, an Islamabad-based think tank focused on Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Drug dealing is open at the Bara wholesale market, which falls in the tribal areas where Pakistani laws are not applicable, under an administrative arrangement between the resident tribes and central government that dates back to British colonial rule.
Two wholesalers there told The National that Afridi forced cultivators in Maidan to sell at discounted rates, and inflated prices by controlling the quantity sold on from Bara. He also extorted money from growers and distributors on the pretext of collecting zakat, the Islamic tax on disposable income and wealth.
Afridi, 41, is a man with an unlikely biography. The native of Bara is said to have started out as a truck or bus driver’s assistant and to have worked in the Gulf in the late 1990s or early 2000s. After returning to Pakistan, he became an activist of a left-wing Pashtun nationalist party, before taking up arms as an Islamist militant.
His effectiveness as a market manipulator has been particularly evident since 2010 and 2011, when favourable weather produced two bumper crops of cannabis in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber tribal area.
Lashkar-i-Islam kept prices from falling by imposing periodic bans on hashish sales from Bara, while stockpiling excess production to regulate future supply.
The price of cannabis resin powder charged to drug dealers at the Bara market has risen steadily to 70,000 rupees (Dh2,556) a kilo at the beginning of this year, from 50,000 rupees when the first sales moratorium was introduced in October 2010, distributors there said.
The security curtain drawn over the Khyber area since last month has all but shut down supplies from Bara, from where distributors have fled to northern Pakistani cities with whatever stocks of hashish they could safely ship.
Lashkar-i-Islam’s focus on the drug trade often brought it into conflict with Khyber-based factions of the TTP, whose ideologue leaders were incensed at its commercial exploitation of their militant Islamist cause – and its refusal to donate any of the proceeds to the TTP war chest.
Afridi narrowly escaped assassination in March 2012, when a suicide bomber attacked the departing Friday congregation at a mosque in Tirah Valley where he had just prayed. The TTP claimed the attack.
He was wounded in a skirmish with Pakistani security forces later that month, and has since maintained a low profile, ceasing the sermons and announcements he had previously delivered daily by FM radio.
His silence sparked rumours of a secret truce with the military, and such speculation grew when the group was not targeted in a military offensive that defeated TTP factions in Tirah Valley in early 2013.
Lashkar-i-Islam stayed silent when the military launched a massive operation against militants in North Waziristan in June. However, Pakistani security agencies later discovered that it had allowed the TTP to move reinforcements from Afghanistan to the area through Tirah, prompting the military attacks on its strongholds last month.
The launch of the offensive in Khyber coincided with the onset of the cool, dry winter season, the prime production season for hashish.
With supply now scarce, the price of hashish has skyrocketed to about 100,000 rupees a kilo, but for the first time in a long while, Lashkar-i-Islam is not in a position to make a killing.
Updated: December 21, 2014 04:00 AM